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Road to recovery in Afghanistan goes through the countryside

As NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, donor countries must rethink their aid to that war-torn country. Edward Girardet, who has reported on Afghanistan for more than 30 years, writes that they must focus on rural areas, where most Afghans live.

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When the West first intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, experienced aid coordinators, journalists, and diplomats had some simple advice:

Don’t get carried away with wasteful military campaigns or a Sisyphean anti-narcotics drive. They contribute little to long-term peace. To help Afghanistan, focus instead on modest but doable development initiatives in the countryside, where nearly 80 percent of Afghans live.

This largely ignored advice still holds, as high-level delegations gather in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5 to consider the way forward in Afghanistan, which has suffered from more than three decades of war. It’s a critical time as NATO-led security forces seek to transition toward 2014, when most troops are expected to leave.

Western and Afghan leaders first met in this German town a decade ago to kick-start a proposed “Marshall Plan” for the reconstruction of this largely impoverished mountainous and desert country.

And yet, at their peril, many nations involved in the “Bonn process” often sought to impose their own agendas – through arrogance or a poor understanding of the situation on the ground. These agendas largely failed to take into account the interests of Afghans.

They have led not only to a disastrous war but also a recovery effort with only limited impact. Afghanistan has reached “a permanent condition of rottenness,” says Anders Fange, the respected former head of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.

The question now is whether the international community will have the imagination – and commitment – to remedy the situation. As it stands, the coalition death toll – more than 2,800 – is fast approaching the number of people who perished in 9/11, while insurgents are operating in areas where they never did before.

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